Monday, August 31, 2009

"You Talkin' To Me?"

It’s Nobody’s Fault

As a youngster, when my mother or father asked my brother and I, "Who did this?" We'd answer, "Nobody." "Mr. Nobody" was accused of causing plenty of damage.

In business conversations with owners, executives, managers, and employees, I track how many times "Mr. Nobody" is at fault. For example, one owner said he'd like to talk to us about turnover in a particular job function. Later he told us, "Our operations people could use some help with customer service." Then he added, "And the salespeople need to be able to consult with clients as a partner."
Many organizations engage in similar circular conversations. Owners or executives tell us, "I know we need to improve around here and we're all for it, and the problem is the [department]. We speak with people in that area and they say, "We totally support any change effort, but the real problem is [job function or department]". We visit them and hear, "The real problem is management." Now we're back to management telling us the real problem is people that aren't engaged, don't align with the business strategy, and aren't willing to take ownership or responsibility. My parents would say that's "Mr. Nobody" at work.

Strategyy is management's responsibility. Unfortunately, boards and executives often inadvertently "delegate" responsibility elsewhere. Our most common response from the executive suite is, "Our strategies are great - people just don't execute." However, what passes for strategy is often little more than a wish list or taking last year's numbers and adding 10 or 15 percent. More often than not, data is contaminated with speculation, hypotheses, and opinions. The underlying assumptions behind many strategic plans we review are clearly flawed.

Of course future projections are, by definition, speculative and unproven. However, if strategies do not obviously sit on a framework of reality, trying to execute them is frustrating at best.

Here are a couple of examples:

Stated Strategy: Increase sales by 32% in X market.

Question: Where did the 32% come from? Why not 29% or 35%?

Answer: [After questioning] It's what we need to cover our costs and protect our margins.

Stated Strategy: Penetrate a new and different market with our products/services.

Question: What is your value-proposition?

Answer: [After questioning] We think we can do a better job than others in the market. We have added-value.

Question: What are you bringing to market that is distinct from what's already available? What's your offering?

Answer: We are customer-focused, high-quality, committed, flexible, and willing to go the extra mile.

Question: : Who else can say that?
[Note: Not, "Who else can do that?"]

Answer: Uh, well, I guess everybody else. [OOPS!]

Sorry if this sounds harsh. Reality is an acquired taste!

It is possible to separate strategy issues from execution issues. For example, if the contrast between current reality and the desired future is unclear, most action steps are speculative at best. This requires a high degree of "buy-in" and burns valuable resources of time and money. When the contrast is clear the path of least resistance is towards what you are building not away from it.

End of Part 1

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